Vernon Baker led a heavy-weapons platoon from the 92nd Infantry Division, an all-black outfit into a battle near Viareggio, Italy, during World War II. It was 1945. During the battle he and his men killed 26 enemy soldiers and destroyed six machine-gun nests, two observation posts and four dugouts. But it took more than a half-century for Baker to receive the military's highest award for battlefield valor, the Medal of Honor.
“I have to talk about this,” artist Keith Ramsey says about his discovery of the systematic discrimination against black men during World War II. “It was like black soldiers were being left out of history and left out of a celebration. And that is how it was when they got back from war. They basically were [told to] go fight over there for the United States, and then come back and go back to your place.”
Ramsey's new show, “Diluted Loss,” at the Black History and Cultural Center, takes into account this overlooked subject. At the peak of the war thousands of black soldiers signed up to fight against one of the most racially oppressive enemies of their time. Meanwhile they fought alongside fellow Americans in an entirely segregated army. Some were even lynched when they returned to their hometowns.
Ramsey, a 1997 graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University's painting and print making program, works with mixed media to produce pieces charged with the internal battle waging inside him about these issues. His work provokes conversation and emotion. The pieces can anger as well as validate. A mix of newspaper scraps, collaged photos, American flags and burned picture frames encase his artist conception of black military experiences during the Good War. His influence shifted from the brush and canvas to the asymmetrical media he shows today after being introduced to the creators of a former Richmond artists' collective known as the Ground Level Railroad.
“These cats painted. It was so loose and they threw stuff in their work and damaged the canvas, and I was looking at it like, ‘Man, that really brings on a different feel to it.' Because they have taken that plane of color and brush strokes and turned it into something that looks like it is dangerous. It looks like you could touch it and cut yourself. And so I started [work] that creates that kind of feeling.”
That feeling comes not only from the initial stories he heard firsthand about the racial indifferences of World War II, but also from the present history he's personally witnessed.
On Jan. 13 1997, the year Ramsey graduated from college, President Bill Clinton belatedly awarded Medals of Honor to seven black soldiers who fought during World War II. The medals were finally awarded after a 1993 study commissioned by the U.S. Army showed conclusive evidence of racial discrimination in the criteria for awarding medals during World War II. When Vernon Baker came to Washington, for the award ceremony, he was 78 years old and the only one who lived long enough to receive his medal.
“It is something I really think about a lot. Sometimes I got to turn the radio off because I am yelling at the radio,” Ramsey says of his political spirit. “Like I am at home by myself. Who am I yelling at? But it is like as soon as I have an argument I got to get it out of me. So I put it in my work.”
Keith Ramsey's “Diluted Loss” will be on display through Sept. 18 at the Black History Museum and Cultural Center, 00 E. Clay St.
The artist will give talks at the museum about his work Aug. 21 and Sept. 11, both at 1 p.m. For information call 780-9107 or go to blackhistorymuseum.org.